The Freedom Flotilla Tragedy: Where is the Soul Searching?

In the wake of Israel’s military attack against Gaza flotilla activists (latest death toll: 14-20), I’ve been scouring the Israeli press to find any semblance of soul searching over how things could have come to this.

To my sorrow, all I’m finding is an analysis of the “tactical mistakes” made by the IDF and the public relations fallout of this tragic attack. In the meantime, there’s the same old defensive posturing from the government:

Jerusalem Post:

The defense minister also called on Arab and Palestinian leaders not to let this “provocation by irresponsible people” ruin the progress made in proximity peace talks…

Israeli Navy commander Vice-Admiral Eliezer Marom said Monday that IDF soldiers that raided Mavi Marmara acted with “perseverance and bravery…”

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said that the flotilla of ships “was an armada of hate and violence…”

I have no doubt that the reaction of the American Jewish community will be just as defensive, if not more so.  As for me, I’ll be hoping against hope that we’ll start to hear different kinds of reactions:

– That the Freedom Flotilla was not simply a movement of provocateurs seeking to “delegitimize” Israel, but a group of activists mounting an act of civil disobedience to bring attention to 1.5 Palestinian citizens who are suffering under a crushing blockade.

– That mounting a military operation against civilian activists in international waters was bound to be futile, illegal, and yes, even immoral.

– That for all our concern over an organized “delegitimization campaign” against Israel, it may well be that Israel is actually delegitimizing itself through oppressive acts such as this.

8 thoughts on “The Freedom Flotilla Tragedy: Where is the Soul Searching?

  1. L Gordon

    Dear Rabbi,

    We’re all struggling to figure out what really happened;
    I haven’t seen anything like this article either.

    Horrified for all,
    L Gordon

    A brutal ambush at sea

    Ron Ben Yishai recounts bloody clash aboard Gaza-bound vessel: The lacking crowd-dispersal means, the brutal violence of ‘peace activists,’ and the attempt to bring down an IDF helicopter

    By Ron Ben-Yishai
    May 31, 2010

    Our Navy commandoes fell right into the hands of the Gaza mission members. A few minutes before the takeover attempt aboard the Marmara got underway, the operation commander was told that 20 people were waiting on the deck where a helicopter was to deploy the first team of the elite Flotilla 13 unit. The original plan was to disembark on the top deck, and from there rush to the vessel’s bridge and order the Marmara’s captain to stop.

    Officials estimated that passengers will show slight resistance, and possibly minor violence; for that reason, the operation’s commander decided to bring the helicopter directly above the top deck. The first rope that soldiers used in order to descend down to the ship was wrested away by activists, most of them Turks, and tied to an antenna with the hopes of bringing the chopper down. However, Flotilla 13 fighters decided to carry on.

    Navy commandoes slid down to the vessel one by one, yet then the unexpected occurred: The passengers that awaited them on the deck pulled out bats, clubs, and slingshots with glass marbles, assaulting each soldier as he disembarked. The fighters were nabbed one by one and were beaten up badly, yet they attempted to fight back.

    However, to their misfortune, they were only equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, such as the ones held in Bilin. The paintballs obviously made no impression on the activists, who kept on beating the troops up and even attempted to wrest away their weapons.

    One soldier who came to the aid of a comrade was captured by the rioters and sustained severe blows. The commandoes were equipped with handguns but were told they should only use them in the face of life-threatening situations. When they came down from the chopper, they kept on shouting to each other “don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” even though they sustained numerous blows.

    ‘I saw the tip of a rifle’

    The Navy commandoes were prepared to mostly encounter political activists seeking to hold a protest, rather than trained street fighters. The soldiers were told they were to verbally convince activists who offer resistance to give up, and only then use paintballs. They were permitted to use their handguns only under extreme circumstances.

    The planned rush towards the vessel’s bridge became impossible, even when a second chopper was brought in with another crew of soldiers. “Throw stun grenades,” shouted Flotilla 13’s commander who monitored the operation. The Navy chief was not too far, on board a speedboat belonging to Flotilla 13, along with forces who attempted to climb into the back of the ship.

    The forces hurled stun grenades, yet the rioters on the top deck, whose number swelled up to 30 by that time, kept on beating up about 30 commandoes who kept gliding their way one by one from the helicopter. At one point, the attackers nabbed one commando, wrested away his handgun, and threw him down from the top deck to the lower deck, 30 feet below. The soldier sustained a serious head wound and lost his consciousness.

    Only after this injury did Flotilla 13 troops ask for permission to use live fire. The commander approved it: You can go ahead and fire. The soldiers pulled out their handguns and started shooting at the rioters’ legs, a move that ultimately neutralized them. Meanwhile, the rioters started to fire back at the commandoes.

    “I saw the tip of a rifle sticking out of the stairwell,” one commando said. “He fired at us and we fired back. We didn’t see if we hit him. We looked for him later but couldn’t find him.” Two soldiers sustained gunshot wounds to their knee and stomach after rioters apparently fired at them using guns wrested away from troops.

    2 errors

    During the commotion, another commando was stabbed with a knife. In a later search aboard the Marmara, soldiers found caches of bats, clubs, knives, and slingshots used by the rioters ahead of the IDF takeover. It appeared the activists were well prepared for a fight.

    Some passengers on the ship stood at the back and pounded the soldiers’ hands as they attempted to climb on board. Only after a 30-minute shootout and brutal assaults using clubs and knifes did commandoes manage to reach the bridge and take over the Marmara.

    It appears that the error in planning the operation was the estimate that passengers were indeed political activists and members of humanitarian groups who seek a political provocation, but would not resort to brutal violence. The soldiers thought they will encounter Bilin-style violence; instead, they got Bangkok. The forces that disembarked from the helicopters were few; just dozens of troops – not enough to contend with the large group awaiting them.

    The second error was that commanders did not address seriously enough the fact that a group of men were expecting the soldiers on the top deck. Had they addressed this more seriously, they may have hurled tear-gas grenades and smoke grenades from the helicopter to create a screen that would have enabled them to carry out their mission, without the fighters falling right into the hands of the rioters, who severely assaulted them.

  2. Thomas Bauer

    That what happened this night, is a rightout disaster. Even if i agree that the flotilla was not purely humanitarian, but to some extend also politically motivated (and then remains still the question as to whom caused the reasons for such a political action ), i can not see any positive effect of the Israeli attack on these ships:
    – this conflict has caused already far too many victims, in numbers of persons killed or wounded, lives destroyed even if the persons survived;
    – the peace talks will suffer a heavy blow.

    The only way out of this conflict is to concede that all populations in the Holy Land have the right to exist, and none has more rights than the others – and it appears that we are getting further and further away from this only solution. I see the same hopelessness as you see.


  3. Arieh Lebowitz

    See these. I could find more, but my computer is balky.

    Members on both the Left and the Right political spectrum on Monday held protests across the country. A few dozen Peace Now activists gathered Monday morning in Tel Aviv and headed to the Ashdod Port to protest against the military seizure of the Gaza flotilla ships, which ended with at least 10 killed and 50 pro-Palestinians injured.
    The left-wing activists gathered in Lewinsky Garden and carried cameras and signs. “I am speechless, there is a sense of shame,” said Tal Bargles. “We are shocked. We couldn’t believe Israel would go so far…”
    SOURCE FOR ABOVE:,7340,L-3896675,00.html

    Also see these:

    ANALYSIS / Israel needs national inquiry into deadly Gaza flotilla clashes: There is no other fitting or proper way to clarify the circumstances of the incident, which began as an act of protest and ended with dead demonstrators and a grave international crisis –

    Bradley Burston, “The Second Gaza War: Israel lost at sea” –

    Predictable Israeli fiasco: Avi Trengo calls for Barak’s dismissal over miserable handling of Gaza-bound flotilla –,7340,L-3896841,00.html

    Gidfeon Levy, “Gaza flotilla drives Israel into a sea of stupidity” –

  4. Mike Okrent

    So the official Israel response (the Ynet news article cited above) is they have some right to board a Turkish ship in international waters. If then they meet with hostilities from weapons, like knives and sticks (these are the weapons that Israel finds surprising aboard a ship), they can retaliate with live fire. I would think that somewhere deep down there would be some Israel military commander wondering what war it is they are fighting.

    For those who say trust Israeal to let in humanitarian aid and they were just exercising their right of self preservation, just look what happened to a shipment of shoes – 2 years in an Israeli warehouse where they were rotting by the time they made it to Gaza. Cement and pasta (previoulsy embargoed)are not weapons.

  5. David Moody

    Now, let’s see, what did I do with my copy of Leon Uris’ “Exodus”?

    It didn’t work for the British; why should the present government of the Israel for which even we gentiles have had such hopes think it appropriate now?

  6. Mary Tappero

    Now that the full UN Human Rights Council report is out, any possibility of a follow-up commentary by Rabbi Brant? I personally found the report extremely upsetting reading, particularly with regard to how many of the passengers were treated following the deaths as well as in Israel. The link is:

    Click to access A.HRC.15.21_en.pdf

    Also, the Jewish Boat to Gaza has started its journey:

    I note that Yonatan Shapira is onboard.


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